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Posts from the ‘Doing history in public’ Category

Doing History in Public 2020 Year in Review

By Zoë Jackson (@ZoeMJackson1) & Evelyn Strope (@develyn_16)

This New Year’s Eve, we look back at 2020, a year many have described as ‘unprecedented’. The coronavirus spread around the world from the start of the year, and the ensuing pandemic and resulting lockdowns have completely altered life as we knew it.

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23. Pseudo-Seneca

By George Pliotis (@gpliotis)

How do we picture ancient Romans? In the case of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.4BC-65AD), eminent littérateur and statesman of his day, we have no contemporary depiction; but something about this bust (which most likely dates to the Hellenistic period) has made it a persistently popular visualisation since the end of the 16th century.  

The story seems to have begun with the Italian antiquarian Fulvio Orsini, who included an image of the bust in his 1598 Imagines Illustrium and, despite its lack of authentic inscription, christened it “Seneca”. His justification was that the figure resembled an image in a Roman contorniate (a kind of medallion) that allegedly bore an inscription of Seneca’s name. However, no record of that contorniate remains. We may therefore suspect that Orsini’s (mis)identification was a consequence of the way the bust manifests an appealing image of Seneca: beyond resembling the “senile body” mentioned by Tacitus, this elderly, ascetic figure, haggard but still possessing an intense gaze, capures much of what we want to see when we read Seneca — the sexagenerian castigator of vice, exhorter to the life of Stoic simplicity, and sage counsel to the wayward emperor Nero.  

Such idealisations are hard to shrug. Today, Seneca has proved a popular figure amid interest in mindfulness and self-help, often presented as a voice of ancient wisdom in a way that takes us back to the wizened look of this “Pseudo-Seneca”: not for nothing will you still find that very image attached to his name. “False” or not, it is an image that’ll be with us for some time.

Further reading:

Campbell R. (ed., tr.), Seneca: Letters from a Stoic (Penguin: 2004).

Strandman, B., “The Pseudo-Seneca Problem”, Konsthistorisk tindskrift/ Journal of Art History 19.1-4 (1950), pp.53-93.

Image: Courtesy of the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Faculty of Classics, Cambridge: https://museum.classics.cam.ac.uk/collections/casts/seneca-so-called.

22. Remora

By Tamara Fernando (@TamaraFernando3)

Before the 1920s, visual renderings of the seafloor largely relied on drawings and engravings. This was true even in places where bodies routinely inhabited the underwater, such as the pearl fisheries of Ceylon. Here, photography did play a role: on the shore and on the decks of colonial steamers, British administrators and elite local and European visitors used photography as a tool of art, surveillance, documentation and science.

In the early twentieth century, Ceylon was a laboratory for the biology of the tropical seas. This photograph here, for instance, was made over the course of a of a Royal Society sponsored investigation into the conditions of the fisheries. In one trawl-netting exercise to deduce which fish fed on pearl-bearing oysters, a suckerfish or remora was brought up. The diver in the photograph is unnamed, and the composition is staged, with the fish placed deliberately on the man’s back to attest to its suction-generating maw. The image is a testament to both direct and indirect violence wrought under colonialism on environments and bodies. But it also invokes a space between the sea and land: a fish out of water, a body that was often submerged within it; a place within photography’s reach which gestured also at spaces that—at this point in time—still lay beyond it.

Image credits: Report to the Government of Ceylon on the Pearl Oyster Fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar (London, 1903), vol. I, 65.

18. Vigani’s Cabinet

By Xinyi Wen (@HPSWarburgian)

Red, umber, carmine, massicot yellow, ultramarine… in a 15×15 inches humble drawer, 63 kinds of pigments constituted a vibrant, colourful world. Each pigment was held in a labelled paper box lining inside the wooden grid, indicating these ingredients’ mobility and their flexibility of spatial arrangement. This drawer, together with other 28 counterparts of seeds, stones, fruits, roots, and animal parts, made up the cabinet of John Francis Vigani (c. 1650–1712), the first Professor of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge.

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17. Praying the Rosary in 17th-Century China

By Weiao Xing (@WeiaoX)

Basking in the sacred light, the Virgin Mary is greeted by Gabriel in an oriental wooden house ornamented with delicate lines and patterns (fig. 1). This unique Annunciation, as one of the fifteen hybridised images, appeared in a seventeenth-century print for Chinese rosary prayers. Its source version was Evangelicae historiae imagines, which was published in 1593 (fig. 2). The Portuguese prelate João da Rocha (1565–1623) is believed to have ‘translated’ these copperplates into indigenous-inspired woodcuts in Nanjing, a vibrant city in East China. This endeavour was completed in around 1620, after the local persecution of Christians which erupted in 1616 when European missionaries were arrested and repatriated to Macao.

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16. A Chimpanzee Painting

By Miles Kempton (https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/people/miles-kempton)

This image shows a chimpanzee painting; not an abstract portrait of a chimpanzee, but a painting by one. The artist was Congo (1954-64), a captive chimpanzee at London Zoo who in the late 1950s caused a scientific and artistic sensation with his uncanny aptitude for painting and drawing. Desmond Morris – zoologist, broadcaster, and author of the international bestseller The Naked Ape (1967) – was behind it all. Between 1956 and 1959, he made Congo the subject of a scientific-cum-artistic experiment into ‘the biology of art’. For Morris, Congo’s pictures were not mere ‘random scratchings’ but displayed the ‘germ… of visual patterning’.[1]

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14. The Petition and Pardon of Elizabeth Wright

By Emily Rhodes (@elrhodes96)

In the early modern era, women had a direct way to contact their king or queen: a petition. Women could and did take their complaints and pleas to the highest authority in the realm. While the petition would go through various secretaries and court officials — such as Gervase Holles, Master of Requests of Charles II, whose entry book lists this petition — the monarch personally had to make the ultimate decision about the lives of even his neediest subjects.[1]

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13. A Sign on a Sudeten House

By Anna-Marie Pipalova

This sign, on a house on the main square of Hudcov, a village in the Sudetenland, announces that the house was in the property of Wenzl Pokorny-Renner, landlord. Further signs on the house state that it was the ‘Gasthaus zum Reichsadler’, the Inn of the Imperial Eagle. The continued presence of these German-language signs harks back to the bilingual nature of the Sudetenland before 1946, when its German population (estimated at around three million people) was expelled, and the territory became Czech-speaking.

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12. Ford Box Bungalow

By Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)

The coast surrounding Cork Harbour is dappled with little holiday cottages. Ivy and gorse break through the flimsy plywood walls of these boxy bungalows, and paint flakes off to reveal the curious industrial origins of these summer homes. These bungalows started life in the Ford Motors Factory, which opened in Cork City in 1919, and manufactured Fordson Tractors.

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10. Old Sheffield Plate Toaster

By Meg Roberts (@megeroberts)

Fancy some Regency-era cheese on toast? By the late eighteenth century, cheese toasters were all the rage among the British upper classes. The six removable trays in this particular toaster from the period could each hold a small slice of toast or bread, topped with cheese. To make the toast, hot water would first be poured into an opening in the stem of the handle until it filled the container underneath the six trays. As the heat quickly permeated the silver plate and copper interior (both excellent heat conductors), it would simultaneously melt the cheese and keep the toast warm. 

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8. A Pack of Playing Cards depicting the ‘Popish Plot’ (ca. 1679)

By Basil Bowdler (@BasilBowdler)

Playing cards were meant for much more than games in late seventeenth century England. They flourished as a medium for conveying political events and (mis)information. This particular pack, which was illustrated by Francis Barlow, details the ‘Popish Plot’ (1678-81): a fictitious conspiracy alleging that an extensive cabal of Catholics were plotting to assassinate Charles II and place his Catholic brother, James Duke of York, on the throne. The Plot detonated latent anti-Catholic paranoia in Restoration England and resulted in the greatest political crisis of Charles II’s reign. At least 22 alleged plotters were executed – the five of clubs depicts the hanging of five Jesuit priests. The country was brought to the brink of civil war and opposing ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ parties began to crystallise in Parliament.

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7. The Pot on the Windowsill

By William Gaby

Towards the end of a telephone conversation with my grandmother a few weeks ago, I was startled by a surprising revelation. As if a fleeting afterthought, she revealed that her mother had recorded an oral history in the early 2000s. “It was only a very amateur recording – I can’t imagine it would be of any use to you”. Demanding that the transcript be posted immediately, a few days later I sat down to read it. The following sprang off the page:

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6. Womanopoly

By Rebecca Goldsmith (@rebeccagold123)

Womanopoly, a board game created by activist and writer Stella Dadzie in the late 1970s, offers an unusual yet productive entry-point for examining late twentieth-century British feminism. The game moves through the life-stages of education, work, politics and the home, in each case capturing the contrasting experiences of men and women; the forces of ‘chance’ consistently acting in men’s favour.

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5. Lieve Verschuier’s ‘Tail Star (Comet) over Rotterdam’

By Lavinia Gambini (https://cambridge.academia.edu/LaviniaGambini)

For early modern contemporaries, comets were not only associated with the birth of Christ. Comets possessed an eschatological dimension and had often been considered signs of imminent catastrophes, such as the Thirty Years’ War.[1] The celestial phenomenon also retained its apocalyptic dimension in the ‘Scientific Revolution’, when in Cambridge the Lucasian Professor for Mathematics, William Whiston, announced in A New Theory of the Earth (1696) that the Earth would soon collide with a comet, finally initiating the Millennium of Christ’s rule.[2]

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4. Jean Marestan’s Sex Manual

By Sophie Turbutt (@Sophie_Turbutt)

L‘Éducation Sexuelle was a popular sex manual written by French anarchist Jean Marestan in 1910. Marestan trained as a doctor but was forced to quit his studies due to financial hardship; instead, he joined a bohemian circle and wrote for anarchist journals. Harnessing his connections in the movement, he managed to get his sex manual widely promoted in the anarchist press, not only in France but also elsewhere in Europe and the Americas. It was translated into five languages, went through many editions, and sold tens of thousands of copies.

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3. The Salamander

By Kate McGregor (https://katemcgregor.academia.edu/)

As wedding presents go a ship is certainly the pièce de résistance. A gift from the French King François I to his new son-in-law James V, King of Scots, it represented the renewal of the Franco-Scots ‘Auld alliance’. [1] At its helm was a glistening salamander, a ‘dragon in flames of fire’, and the emblem of the French king.

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1. An Anti-Communist Newspaper

By Alex White (@alex_j_white)

The first issue of Jours d’Afrique [‘African Days’] hails itself as ‘a new newspaper for a new era’. [1] This is a fair claim: the journal was published in January 1961, only months after the decolonisation of French Equatorial Africa. Grainy photographs of new presidents stare down from the front page and articles inside discuss the promises and challenges of independence. [2] Its benign appearance, however, is intentionally misleading. As a letter to the British Colonial Office reveals, Jours d’Afrique was not an independent publication but a secret production of the French government – a direct form of anti-communist propaganda for distribution across their former colonies in central Africa. [3]

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Top 3 Digital Tools for Doing History

By Evelyn Strope (@develyn_16)

As we all continue to navigate an increasingly virtual world during the coronavirus pandemic, I thought I would share a list of my favorite digital tools that I use to organize sources, annotate readings, manage citations, draft chapters, and conceptualize the ‘big picture’ of the PhD, in the hopes that they help make online research a little less daunting.

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Questioning Modern Slavery Legislation through the Trade of SS Allach Porcelain

By Tristan Bromley @TefaBrom

Porcelain is not something usually associated with Nazism. Yet from 1936–45, the Nazi SS, were fostering this precise link through the Allach Porcelain Manufactory, an SS company.[I] Amongst its produce were animal figurines, vases, candleholders, as well as models of SS men and other ‘Aryan’ figurines. Each piece bore the company’s mark of the double SS sig rune. This porcelain was not however only made by SS men. While the company was founded in the Munich suburb of Allach, most of its production was moved to a factory at Dachau in 1937, and from 1940 wartime labour shortages meant concentration camp labour was employed.[ii] A cursory internet search will reveal that despite these clear links to forced labour, Allach porcelain is still sold today by private dealers, auction houses, and on common marketplace platforms including eBay. It is easily purchasable from the UK and pieces sold internationally have fetched prices of thousands and tens of thousands of pounds, euros, and dollars.[iii]

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Book Review – Augustine Sedgewick, Coffeeland: A History

By Jordan Buchanan

Augustine Sedgewick, Coffeeland (Allen Lane, 2020), £25.00.

In Coffeeland, Augustine Sedgewick achieves the often-elusive goal of creating an academic history that is enjoyable for the non-professional history enthusiast. Coffee is a product so closely attached to complex historical themes that this history could easily have become an esoteric one. By taking the reader on a biographical journey entwined with world history, Sedgewick creates a work that accessibly demonstrates the complexity of its main theme of global capitalism.

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